The Writer at Work: Emma Rathbone

This post inaugurates a new series called The Writer at Work, looking behind the scenes at our writers’ lives: how and where they write, how they landed their first book deal, what it’s like to be edited, where they draw their inspiration. Our first entry comes from Emma Rathbone, whose debut novel The Patterns of Paper Monsters publishes today.  Here Emma describes the first step in her road to publication: securing an agent.  Check back each day this week for more installments.

Let’s just say that as someone prone to anxiety, the process of finding an agent and publishing house for my book did not exactly play to my strengths. There are many ups and downs, and I often tried to channel the grit and self-possession of a prairie woman facing a tough winter.

I started where most writers do, with the query letter. Well, first I wrote a novel (lend me your ear for about nine hours at a party and I’ll tell you about that process) and then I found myself in the position of needing to find someone to represent the book.

A query letter is where you introduce yourself to potential agents and sort of summarize your book, and it’s pretty much like homework, except you have to care about it and it has to be good. Really, really good—your novel distilled into one galvanizing power chord and then put on paper. It’s also important to not come off like a total lunatic.

This took me many drafts, and a lot of fine tuning, but basically ended up being that awful thing like when you’re trying on outfits for the night, and you go through a million different incarnations, only to realize that the thing you had on first was fine.

So, with my query in hand, I set about finding an agent. This was also a wilderness to be navigated—turns out there are, like, billions of them and none of them resemble my initial picture of a New York Literary Agent, which is a brassy older lady a la Blanche Devereaux, wearing massive shoulder pads and barking into a bulky phone.

Long story short, one crisp weekday in May, I rode up an elevator in a beautiful old building in New York. On the way down, I was spinning like a top–someone had offered to represent my book, and he was very enthusiastic about it and seemed to genuinely have enjoyed the reading experience and he definitely wasn’t my mom, and these were all good signs.

But I was soon to find out that getting an agent was almost the easy part. What came next was harder—waiting for the book to sell, if it was even going to sell, and that, as anybody who doesn’t live in a movie will understand, is no guarantee. Here’s something I learned about publishing during that time, and I hope it won’t sound cynical. Everyone wants to discover the new hit, or literary sensation or whatever, but it’s very difficult to go out on a limb. Once someone does, publishers tend to fall in, rank and file. And so there’s this terrible aspect to waiting for someone to bite—the more time that goes by, the more you get the sense that potentially interested editors are collectively feeling “Well, if no one else is making an offer…”

Two and a half weeks felt like a very long time to me. When my agent called to tell me someone had made an offer I was on my way to the law firm where I worked as a receptionist. I was pulling into a dank parking garage that resembled something from a super violent video game. I double parked, screamed into the phone, and proceeded upstairs, to the office, where I unnerved everyone with bald joy.

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